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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christopher Charles, left, and Steven Sargetakis work on computers with SketchUp Make, a 3D modeling program. The University of Utah and Columbus Community Center are testing a pilot program that hopes to eventually connect people with autism with jobs. The pilot project is training 10 high school students in the new technology while also helping them build confidence and social skills.
Autistic teens use architecture software to build job skills
Conference » Hiring people with disabilities is good for society and economy, speakers say.
First Published Jul 14 2014 07:53 pm • Last Updated Jul 15 2014 09:25 am

Sixteen-year-old Mason Dimock can focus intently on one subject, thinks visually and spatially, and is interested in technology — skills that have helped him land a summer job designing for a construction company.

He and nine other Salt Lake City teens were selected for a pilot project by NeuroVersity, a company that aims to give students with autism or similar disorders the training they’ll need for careers. The students work with 3-D imaging software called SketchUp Make, developed by Google.

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"I think it’s a great program," Dimock said about the pilot Monday. "It not only helps you with SketchUp, but it helps with social skills, too ... [The software] is good for architecture. You can make pretty good money; they use it for construction."

The NeuroVersity effort was highlighted at a Monday conference, "The Bottom Line of Disabilities: The Social Financial and Economic Impact in Our Communities," held at the Columbus Community Center in Salt Lake City. The gathering was sponsored by the nonprofit center, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and others.

"In economics, we’re always looking for investment and productivity. That’s when we grow," said Natalie Gochnour, associate dean for the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business. "People with disabilities bring a very unique skill set, very valuable skills."

Connecting disabled people with jobs helps fuel the economy with "a return on investment and [workers] being productive," she said, noting that 65 percent of Utahns with disabilities are unemployed.

Keynote speaker Thorkil Sonne launched his Danish company, Specialisterne, to help workers with autism deploy their strengths in the technology sector.

Employing people with disabilities, he said, is simply about changing the way we think.

Instead of viewing a dandelion as a weed, think of it as an herb, he said. Instead of viewing a person as someone with a disability, think of them as someone with a particular set of skills, Sonne said.

"We need more talent," he said. "We need to bring in more people with autism and other similar disorders. There are so many who want to contribute to the labor market."

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NeuroVersity was founded by U. nursing professor Scott Wright and Cheryl Wright, a U. professor of family and consumer studies. The students who were selected for the two-week pilot project at the Columbus center — all boys — were recommended by their high schools.

SketchUp is used in industries such as construction, architecture, urban planning and video game designing. The first week, the teens designed their own creations, building trucks, tanks, dragon worlds, 260-house neighborhoods and raceways.

Most of the students worked on their projects over the weekend, even though homework wasn’t assigned.

Last week, Wright said, organizers told the boys, "If you want to come back next week, you’ll be able to work on a real project and get paid."

All ten students came back on Monday. The amount of their pay will be announced later as a surprise for them.

Mike Plaudis, from Big-D Construction, who has a son with autism, taught the students the basics of designing a building on Monday. He asked the boys to convert 2D drawings of a building his company built in Ogden to a three-dimensional blueprint.

The 3D images are used to communicate how all the different pieces and parts of a building fit together, he explained.

Beyond the technical skills, Wright said, the program is also about building self-confidence.

"The entire experience has been magical," said Mason’s mother, Denise Dimock. "It’s empowered him."

She said by being around kids who share his interests, Mason has become more confident about his talent and his work. He even presented his project in front of about 15 people.

Denise Dimock said the program is improving his problem-solving skills, his persistence and his motivation. When she stopped to run errands after a class last week, she said, he told her, "Mom, I need to get home to work on my SketchUp."

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